DREAMCATCHER (2015) review
written by: Kim Longinotto
produced by: Lisa Stevens and Teddy Lefler
directed by: Kim Longinotto
runtime: 104 min.
U.S. release date: January 25, 2015 (Sundance), March 27, 2015 and September 11, 2015 (limited)
“Dreamcatcher” is a film you’ll wish wasn’t true, but in the end you’ll be grateful that you were exposed to such raw and real truth. The documentary by veteran British director Kim Longinotto covers heavy and often depressing material, yet focuses on love and hope throughout. This is the first film of hers I’ve seen and I found myself very impressed by the trust she established with her subjects, which earns “Dreamcatcher” an honest and intimate look at the damaging effects of abuse, addiction and prostitution. The hope and love comes in the form of Brenda Myers-Powell, an ex-addict/prostitute who crusades the streets of Chicago, hoping to help at-risk women, volunteering her time and energy in order to offer a chance to redirect broken lives. She is one of the most exuberant, vulnerable and determined figures I’ve seen on-screen all year.
The first time we meet Myers-Powell she is in the passenger seat of a van being driven by fellow ex-addict/prostitute, Stephanie Daniels-Wilson. The two are cruising the volatile neighborhoods of Chicago’s west side late at night. Myers-Powell is the navigator. She knows where to go to find who she wants to see because she used to be just like the woman she’s trying to find. She tells Stephanie to pull over at a certain corner when she sees a woman standing underneath a street light. “Sweetie, you need condoms!” she asks. She because she knows. She also knows that the only way these women will listen to her – and believe her when she tells them that she’s there for them – is to meet them where they’re at. Telling them to stop turning tricks isn’t going to win them over. It isn’t going to help them see a way out and change their lives.
Brenda is all about actually hearing these women out, offering them someone who will listen to their stories. How they came to work the streets, who abused or abandoned them, how many children they have and so on. Brenda knowingly nods, telling them of her past. How she started out as a teenage prostitute after an abusive childhood, eventually drug-addicted, continuing for nearly twenty-five years as ‘Breezy’ and one night wound up beaten to the point where she had no face. She knows that she may be the only person in their lives who can relate to them. She may also be the only one these woman can look at and see that there is a way out of addiction and working the streets. Others may disregard them as hookers or crackheads, but she sees herself in them and now as an advocate for change, she wants these discarded women to see themselves in her life.
To do this, Brenda has established the Dreamcatcher Foundation with Stephanie, a nonprofit organization that offers rehabilitation and therapy for women in need. If they are literally living on the street and have no roof, she will help them find a place to live. She’ll take women out for coffee or lunch and just listen, relate and offer support. It may take a while for some to come around and trust Brenda after so many people have let them down (not to mention the legal system), but when the feel Brenda’s hand on theirs and look in her eyes, they begin to realize she’s the real deal. She can’t judge them, because she was them.
“If you know somebody got your back, you’ll make it,” Brenda tells a group of at-risk teen girls who are part of an after school group she leads at Paul Robeson high school. The goal is to prevent the same trauma from happening in their lives. Although they are still young, many of these girls have their own horrors to share. One girl no longer lives with her mother, because she would get molested by relatives or friends her mother left her with. One girl was raped by her older sister’s friend late at night in her bedroom at age eleven. Another girl now lives with an older boyfriend to escape abuse at home, but she checks in on her multiple siblings regularly to make sure they’re doing okay. The scenes with these young women are often some of the most powerful in “Dreamcatcher” because one can’t ignore how truly saddening it is to see innocence taken at such a young age.
At times, Brenda will bring in guest speakers – those she knew from back in the day, like fellow ex-prostitutes and in particular a friend of her former pimp. He too has changed after a regretful life of drug-addiction and pimping young women off to abusive men. He provides a needed male perspective for these teens and can be seen traveling to Las Vegas with Brenda for a human trafficking convention where they both share their moving testimonials.
We also see her leading a workshop for women in prison, talking to them as a peer who made it out. She is both funny and forceful and accepted by her hardened listeners. When she opens up the floor for sharing and we hear one woman share a brutal altercation she had with one of her clients, how she was beaten and bloodied, the camera pans to faces with knowing expressions and we see the value in what Brenda provides. It’s hard but healing and hopeful.
In between these locations, Brenda can be seen fielding phone calls from battered women, their family members or teenage runaways – often from her bed or in front of her bathroom mirror, all while deciding which wig to put on. Longinotto covers all of this like a fly on the wall, respectfully following Brenda at work and home, provided audiences with a candid look at uncanny vulnerability from Brenda and those she impacts. It would all be too challenging to watch for viewers if it wasn’t for how charismatic and positive Brenda is. She draws us in on film just as much as she obviously does to those around her in person. She is clearly a needed presence.
Longinotto takes us in deeper though by showing us that underneath the compassion and acceptance Brenda offers, she worries and feels pain like anyone else. When a bilateral knee replacement is looming in her future, Brenda can be seen tearing up as she things about being away from the teens she regularly visits even though she’s found a suitable replacement. She would rather be helping others than recuperating from surgery. Longinotto provides an intimate look at the toll of serving others, similar to what Steve James provided in his documentary “The Interrupters“.
Another behind-the-scenes look at Brenda that Longinotto provides can be found when we learn that she and her husband adopted her brother’s young son. The boy’s mother is still in the picture, living with Brenda’s despondent brother and knew that Brenda would be a better provider – the mother she couldn’t be. Brenda has regular ‘girl talk’ times with her and reassures her of her valuable role in her son’s life. Such a rare act of grace and kindness is quite incredible to behold.
Longinotto covers a lot of ground in “Dreamcatcher” and some of the most powerful moments are when she fixes her camera on the stories these women tell. Unfortunately, many of those moments are accompanied by subtitles while they speak. It feels somewhat needed because some of the speakers are hard to understand either due to previous injuries or poor education, but after a while I couldn’t help but notice some of the text involved speech correction, which was kind of off-putting to me. I’m glad that it helped understand what they were saying, but I think I could’ve figured it out without the distraction of it being spelled out for me.
That’s just one qualm I had in an overall excellent documentary. It’s a film that surprised me. The kind of surprise I look for each year as I watch hundreds of movies. This one will remain with me for some time and remind me that everyone has a story and that we only hurt ourselves when we write people off based on their appearance or how they live. “Dreamcatcher” may be hard to watch at times, but what you’ll leave with is hope, empathy and compassion, exactly what Brenda Myers-Powell gives to others every day.